This summer’s first show at the newly reconfigured Tate Britain is a glorious double whammy. Even before the first room, you laugh out loud as, sweaty palm on pink paint, you swing open “How to Paint a Door” (2013) – a glossed-up pair of gallery doors that also stand in for a simplified face: chocolate-brown portholes for giant eyes, recessed hand panels for nose, sugary flesh-hued ground. The doors lead into Gary Hume’s high-shine, witty, neutral world of lean, clean picture-book birds, flowers, snowmen – a seductive, media-savvy place that pretends to be all about surface but, in this small and vibrant exhibition, looks increasingly serious and resonant.
Hume made his name 20 years ago with a series of monochrome life-size paintings of hospital doors – minimalist yet painterly; abstract even as their insistent verticality opened possibilities for portraiture and figuration; just touching on the political at a time of National Health Service cuts. Paintings that looked like installations, they shared the laconic, declarative assurance of Hume’s fellow Young British Artists: Hirst’s shark, Emin’s bed, Whiteread’s “House”.
Tate superbly yanks Hume out of this familiar context. A step away from his pink portals is another mini-retrospective, this one concluding with a more sombre pair of doors: Patrick Caulfield’s four-metre “Bishops”. Here, an episcopal-purple interior, constructed from Caulfield’s trademark planes of flat colour and outlined props of vase, alcove and plant, is illuminated by raking light cast from unlikely angles. It centres on a large yellow lampshade hovering behind swing doors – their golden handles are the only naturalistically depicted objects – left slightly ajar, as if someone has just passed through. This most poignant canvas by an artist of generally wry detachment was painted in the year before Caulfield’s death from cancer in 2005.
A generation apart, Hume and Caulfield enliven and dignify one another. They share much: stark graphic delineation; shrill, luxuriant colour; impersonal, non-gestural brushwork; optimism and humour with an undertow of sadness; banal motifs that are really an excuse to meditate on the nature of picture-making. To modernism’s openings and closures, each brought a fresh and energetic approach during the two 20th-century decades – Caulfield in the 1960s, Hume in the 1990s – when British art claimed a role on the international stage.
Expect to feel hungry in the Caulfield rooms: no artist so embraced the postwar era of plenty and possibility that transformed social and cultural aspirations. At the table laid at a window with a view in “Still Life: Maroochydore”, a towering black pepper mill rivals the lakeside cypress, and the leaves of a salade Niçoise echo the green ripples in the water. Overgrown leeks in “Still Life: Autumn Fashion” are set against Matisse-like patterned cloths; an outsize lobster lends a note of strident colour to “Reserved Table”, whose otherwise cool white-lemon-grey harmonies recall Braque.
Allusions to French art, French food, snapshots from Mediterranean holiday postcards and hotel brochures – the blazing red roses on a sea-facing balcony in “Santa Margherita Ligure”; the rose architectural facades of “Spring time: Face à la Mer” – are all plundered and reassembled. In “After Lunch” a waiter – a rare human appearance in a Caulfield painting – surveys an empty restaurant: on the wall is an incongruous photorealist painting of the Château de Chillon, obscured by a cartoon fish tank, a nod to Matisse’s famous goldfish series.
The comic plurality of styles, from trompe l’oeil to complex perspectival games, itself reflects sudden consumer abundance and choice, as well as demanding, at the dawn of media hype, that we interrogate how we read and absorb images.
Caulfield is never quite satirical, although the all-over burgundy “Tandoori Restaurant” and the photorealist chicken Kievs gleaming in the graphically simplified “Candlelit Dinner” come close. Rather, he remained, as Christopher Finch defined him as early as 1971, “a romantic disarmed by his own sense of irony”.
Melancholy is an undercurrent, because Caulfield is an artist of feeling as well as of concepts – “feelings”, wrote his friend Howard Hodgkin, “about what it is to be an artist – about friendship and sociability. He was such a connoisseur of spaces where people gather for pleasure, such as restaurants and bars, and he managed to convey ... the melancholy that can haunt such spaces – born of emptiness and artifice.”
From the film noir orange/black grid painting “Window at Night” (1969) to the finale of “Braque Curtain” (2005), where a black lamp eclipses an orange one in a composition echoing the rhythms of Braque’s “The Duet” (1937), Caulfield at his best tempers structural formality with reined-in emotion.
Gary Hume grew up with the mass-media iconography that had started when Caulfield became a painter. “Beautiful” queries what beauty means in this fetishising culture: in a tondo evoking Renaissance ideals of perfection, the subtly traced features of supermodel Kate Moss are drawn as a bas-relief within a flat bright pink plane; superimposed is an outline of Michael Jackson’s nostrils.
Hume constantly fights his instinct for grace and decorativeness. Flower paintings are monstrously gorgeous – a deep pink rose in full bloom in “The Whole World”, a single crimson bloom in “Tulips”. In “Nicola as an Orchid” the female form morphs into a flower, the head an olive oval, the hair a pale lemon streak coursing down a silvery ground with an abstracted willowy elegance that brings to mind Klimt, Alex Katz and Ellsworth Kelly.
In a sickly blue-green anti-harmony, “Young Mother and Child” captures the stubborn pride, uneasy responsibility and desperate protectiveness of a Goth-like teenage mother holding an over-large baby. As unyielding is the faceless ageing figure in profile, grey-black except for a pink dot-nipple on a sagging breast, in “Older”.
“If I can’t see regret in a painting, then I think it’s less than truthful,” Hume says. The two dozen works here, painted mostly in gloss, occasionally in enamel and on aluminium, glint and reflect light in brilliant liquid pools of colour, rippling to cohere into images that at once look on the verge of dissolution, and suggest transient moments of beauty frozen on to hard metal surfaces: paintings of time by a Young British Artist who lasted the course.
‘Patrick Caulfield’ and ‘Gary Hume’, Tate Britain, London to September 1 www.tate.org.uk